Districts should embrace budget provisions that reward high-performing charters

Among the many differences the conference committee must
resolve between the House and Senate versions of the state budget is a Senate
provision that would reward exceptional charter schools with low-cost
facilities. Specifically:

  • Districts would be required to offer up available
    space to charter schools for lease if it goes unused by the district for two
    years,
  • When multiple charter schools express interest
    in the space, the district would have to lease it to the highest-performing
    school among the mix, and
  • If the leasing charter school is in the top 50%
    of all schools statewide, based on its “performance index score” – a measure of
    academic achievement – the district would lease the space for $1 per year.

Gene Harris, superintendent of Columbus City Schools, Ohio’s
largest district and one with a history of blocking
charter schools
from its unused facilities, is opposed to the change. Her reasons
include that charters might not have sufficient funds to maintain a facility
and that it prevents the district from leasing to other “important”
organizations. These are valid concerns, and the conference committee could
amend the provision to address them. But this seems like yet another instance
where anti-charter sentiment among the education establishment is so ingrained
that districts struggle to recognize those pro-charter policies that can
actually benefit them.

For starters, this provision is fiscally smart for
districts. If a district must maintain unused facilities regardless, why not
lease to a charter school that will pick up those costs?  Further, this provision requires districts to
lease, not sell, the space (as current law requires), so if a district’s
enrollment rebounds or it otherwise needs to use the space in question, it can
certainly reassume occupation and care of the facility down the road. And let’s
not forget that the buildings charter schools are after are older ones that,
for the most part, are emptying out because the state is pouring billions into
building fancy new schools for districts.

Second, this provision is good for students.  It encourages the
growth of high-performing schools, not the unchecked flourishing of lousy ones.
Consider the $1-annual-lease clause. Last school year, 3,503 Ohio school
buildings had a Performance Index score (another 172, for various reasons, did
not). Because of the overall mediocre performance of the state’s charter
schools (and this budget bill separately tackles the issue of charter quality),
just 21 charter schools statewide would
meet the bar for the $1 annual lease (see Chart 1 for the list of qualifying
schools). 

These are schools that any urban superintendent should be
comfortable “losing” students to – schools like Citizens Academy and the Intergenerational School, both in
Cleveland and members of the Breakthrough Schools network of high-flying
charter schools; Dayton Early
College Academy
in Fordham’s hometown; the Charles and Graham Schools at Ohio Dominican
University; and Arts & College
Preparatory Academy
in Columbus.  All
of the schools that make the cut are out-performing their home school districts
and many are doing it whilst serving the neediest and most challenging students
in their communities. 

Chart 1. Charter
schools in the top 50 percent of all Ohio public schools by Performance Index
score, 2009-10

Unlike the notoriously
bad
charter provisions inserted in the budget bill by the Ohio House (and rightly
and swiftly removed by the Senate), this charter policy change is one that
districts should embrace.  They should
let go of their instinctive, immediate opposition to anything that could “help”
the competition and instead be supportive of those policies that can be
mutually beneficial and, most importantly, improve education options for
students.

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